6/27/06 Edition

The Man of Steel Grounded in a Disappointing Return
Plus: THE MATADOR, ULTRAVIOLET, New Midnite Movies and More!

One of my first, and fondest, movie memories is of Christopher Reeve taking to the skies in “Superman II.” It was a rainy summer day and I still have vivid recollections about that experience, from the action sequences of Superman fighting the Phantom Zone villains to the “mushy stuff” involving Clark and Lois in Niagara Falls. The combination of Christopher Reeve’s performance with the script’s perfect mix of action, romance and comedy, capped by the triumphant music of John Williams (even though it was adapted by Ken Thorne with a smaller orchestra) sold me forever on the power of the cinematic medium and, to some extent, the Man of Steel himself.

That takes us to my recent screening of SUPERMAN RETURNS -- a movie that opened Wednesday on a blustery, rainy late June day in southern New England, a setting very similar to when “Superman II” captivated me some 25 years ago.

I’ve seen plenty of movies since then, and we all know that the excitement you feel as a kid going to the movies just isn’t the same when you’re an adult. That said, I still felt a flash of anticipation when the lights dimmed for “Superman Returns”....and even more so when the strains of John Williams’ classic theme blasted on the soundtrack (even if it was in a plastic arrangement that failed to match the efforts of Ken Thorne).

Director/co-writer Bryan Singer had gotten it right, no doubt: here was the ultimate way to begin his new film -- a sequel of sorts to the Reeve pictures -- and it couldn’t have possibly set the mood any more perfectly than it did: recycling the old credits, with the original music, in a way that nearly brought the comparatively few fans sitting around me to their feet.

And then the movie started proper...and, regrettably, I never felt that the picture soared quite as high again.

While “Superman Returns” (**) is anything but a turkey, it nevertheless suffers from a weak screenplay that never once instills a sense of urgency in the viewer. Perhaps that’s due to Singer wanting to pay homage to the Reeve films while simultaneously fulfilling the obligations of a “modern” spectacle. True enough, this version is more than respectful of the older films, incorporating references from production design to arbitrary quotes of John Williams’ score and even obscure bits of trivia (like the Kryptonian rock from Addis Ababa).

At the same time, “Superman Returns” is also so solemn -- almost totally lacking in humor -- that it never approximates the sense of fun that the Alexander Salkind-produced movies had in spades. Like too many recent comic book movies, it inflates the importance of its roots, opting instead to apply an ersatz “mythological” undercurrent to the entire story -- essentially portraying Superman as a Christ-like figure and spending far too much time on shots of its hero flying around, contemplating his existence from afar -- that it strips the picture of the unabashed pleasure viewers extracted from its predecessors...not just the “Superman” movies but also other adaptations like the “Lois and Clark” and “Smallville” television series as well. Ultimately, the film left me feeling that its central idea (credited to Singer, Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty) was simply misguided from the get-go.

Singer’s rendition opens with Superman having been away for five years, searching the distant reaches of the galaxy for the remnants of Krypton. He returns, “reborn” as it were, as a 24-year-old Kal-El played by Brandon Routh in what turns out to be a shockingly thankless role. Routh looks like Reeve as Clark Kent and channels his predecessor’s mannerisms effectively, but as time passed in the film, I wanted something more from Routh: it’s one thing to do a Christopher Reeve impersonation but Routh never seems to channel the Man of Steel’s soul. It’s a safe, calculated performance -- likely the fault of the script and Singer more than Routh himself -- and I never felt as if the movie was really asking the actor to do much more than essay the part as Reeve would have...which is unfortunate because no one can really duplicate the late actor’s heartfelt, convincing performance as Superman.

Clark returns home to Smallville and reunites with his Earth-bound mother Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint) in a somewhat awkward “recap” of the Superman legend (Singer doesn’t want to tread over any previous origin viewers may be aware of, so he uses a quick flashback of Clark growing up instead), and then quickly heads to Metropolis. Sadly, this isn’t the Metropolis you remember from the old movies -- in other words, it doesn’t have the “real world,” authentic look that Richard Donner and his associates brought to the first “Superman” film. This Metropolis is overly-stylized, I’m afraid, with plenty of arty shadows, a bit of CGI and Art Deco-inspired sets that all too tellingly mark the film as a product of 2006.

Upon returning to the Daily Planet, Clark finds Lois (Kate Bosworth) now with a five-year-old son and a new beau in Richard White (James Marsden), the nephew of the paper’s cantakerous editor Perry White (Frank Langella). Lois’ relationship with Superman didn’t end well, so when the Man of Steel returns and saves a space shuttle mission that Lois is covering, she feels torn between her Pulitzer-prize winning column about “Why We Don’t Need Superman” and the Earth’s obvious, newfound excitement over the Man of Steel’s return. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is also up to his old tricks, deciding to steal crystals from the Fortress of Solitude and literally create his own continent that would also submerge the United States of America in the process...

One of the things that struck me about “Superman Returns” was how little the script did to support its actors.

Spacey is completely ineffective as Lex Luthor here, and the movie tends to grind to a halt whenever he’s on-screen. Lacking both the deft comedic touch that Gene Hackman brought to “Superman” I and II as well as the young, charismatic and suave approach that Michael Rosenbaum brings to his incarnation on “Smallville,” Spacey is adrift in every way in “Superman Returns,” serving up a Luthor who’s neither funny nor villainous. The screenplay lacks witty one-liners and likewise manages to completely waste the considerable talents of Parker Posey as Luthor’s female foil -- the kind of role that Valerie Perrine embraced so memorably in the original films -- plus Kal Penn, who receives prominent billing but barely a word of dialogue as another of Lex’s associates. Calling Spacey and the Luthor element of the movie a disappointment is an understatement (ditto for the Daily Planet, where Sam Huntington’s Jimmy Olsen and Langella’s Perry White have precious little to do but say their few lines and move on, making as little noise as possible).

Bosworth wouldn’t have been my first choice for the female lead but she’s acceptable, albeit bland when compared to other on-screen Lois Lanes (even “Smallville”’s Erica Durance has considerably more personality than her big-screen counterpart). Nevertheless, I didn’t mind her nearly as much as I thought I would, given that the movie presents us with a 22-year-old (and Pulitzer prize-winning) Lois having a five-year-old son in tow.

The big problem is that for all the effects, all the bombast, and the bloated running time, “Superman Returns” offers few crackerjack action sequences (the opening shuttle rescue is solid but everything after it is leaden by comparison) and is, ultimately, anything but compelling.

At its worst the movie is downright dull in stretches, with Luthor’s plan of creating another continent feeling like the backing for a bigger, grander apocalyptic premise...which the film doesn’t offer. Maybe if Spacey’s Luthor had been supported by the Phantom Zone villains or another menace, the movie might have worked better, but on its surface the basic idea propelling the film’s premise isn’t very interesting.

Neither, ultimately, is the relationship between Lois and Superman. For a movie that’s supposed to offer a grand “love story” the movie is surprisingly bland, with Bosworth and Routh failing to ignite the sparks one would come to expect from these characters (indeed, perhaps a major failing of the filmmakers casting young actors in roles that inherently carry a lot of emotional baggage as written).

More over, Singer and the writers never bother to really establish a triangle between Lois, Clark and Richard White, while the aspect of Lois’ son...let’s just say without spoiling its significance that it’s going to throw potential “Superman” sequels into a direction some fans may have little interest in watching play out.

Technically, “Superman Returns” is polished but John Ottman’s music is telling of the picture’s shortcomings. Williams’ themes are re-used throughout but they ultimately serve to illustrate how disappointing Ottman’s fresh contributions to the movie are by comparison. The composer’s new motif for Luthor’s gang is jaunty and memorable, but the rest of his score -- with its over-blown chorus and a particularly unsatisfying “flying” cue that apprehensively recycles “Can You Read My Mind” -- just doesn’t work, and the sheer amount of loud, shrill music ultimately overstays its welcome. (On the other hand, there are several cues in the movie that I would’ve liked to have heard on the album, but alas, the soundtrack CD clocks in only at 55 minutes, leaving out Ottman’s usage of the “Krypton” fanfare among other cues).

“Superman Returns” has its heart in the right place but fans will ultimately demand more than that and I’m not sure if this massively-budgeted epic will prove to be the real franchise-igniter it’s intended to be. Call it a disappointing return for the Man of Steel, who’s undone here not by Kryptonite but rather unremarkable performances and a bland and tedious script that grounds Superman right when he ought to be flying high on-screen again. (PG-13; Warner; 154 minutes).

If you’re looking for a Man of Steel fix this week to supplement your viewing of “Superman Returns,” Warner has free and/or discounted ticket vouchers inside many of their Superman DVD packages I covered last week (including “Superboy: The Complete First Season” and “Superman: Brainiac Attacks”).

The free ticket vouchers (good for a single admission to the new movie, covering $10.50 and expiring 7/30) are also available in marked copies of SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES: Volume 3 and JUSTICE LEAGUE: Season 2 (Warner).

The creative minds behind “Batman: The Animated Series” reunited for their own treatment of the Man of Steel, and while “Superman: The Animated Series” didn’t prove to be quite as long-running as the Dark Knight’s show, fans still rank this adaptation with the best Superman renditions in the visual medium.

Previous Warner Home Video box-set collections assembled the initial 36 episodes from the series, and the studio’s new two-disc set contains the remaining 18 shows (the back packaging erroneously indicates that it’s a three-platter release). The episodes here alternate between self-contained stories and more ambitious multi-part “arcs,” which introduce Supergirl (“Little Girl Lost”) and feature appearances by the likes of Aquaman, the Green Lantern, Apokolips and others.

Needless to say if you enjoyed the earlier “S:TAS” box sets this new release is an obvious must-purchase, with commentaries contained on the episodes “Apokolips...Now! Part 2,” “In Brightest Day,” and the finale episode, “Legacy Part 2,” from producers Bruce Timm and Glen Murakami plus writers and other artists as well. One new featurette, “Superman: Behind the Cape,” includes an interview with this version’s Jimmy Olsen, David Kaufman, who shows viewers behind the scenes, while an extract from the recent “Look, Up in the Sky!” A&E/Warner documentary is also on-hand. The full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Digital surround soundtracks are likewise superb.

Finally the second season of “Justice League” has also materialized in time for the Man of Steel’s new movie, with Bruce Timm and Co. settling into their groove in this collection of 26 sophomore-season episodes from the Cartoon Network series (still being produced under the slightly-modified “Justice League Unlimited” moniker).

As with JL’s first season, Timm and his co-producer James Tucker opted to go the multi-part route exclusively with the series, enabling the vast roster of DC heroes (Supes, Batman, Wonder Woman, Glenn Lantern, The Flash, Hawkgirl and Martian Manhunter) time to each get involved across the two, sometimes three-episode long story arcs.

The animation and production values are again strong in season two, with Warner’s four-disc set containing non-anamorphic widescreen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Surround mixes, plus commentaries on the episodes “Twilight Part 2,” “A Better World Part 2,” and “Starcrossed Part 3,” which concludes the set. Like “Superman” above, there’s one additional featurette, “Justice League Declassified,” with Green Lantern voice Phil Lamaar giving you a tour of the production.

Highly recommended for DC fans of all ages, with the pot being sweetened by the ticket coupon for “Superman Returns,” which I assume nearly everyone in the fan base will be energized to see this week!

Aisle Seat Pick of the Week

THE MATADOR (***, 2004). 97 mins., R, Weinstein/Genius Products.
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary tracks; Deleted/Extended Scenes; Making Of featurette; 16:9 Widescreen (2.35), 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Surprisingly funny, well-played and offbeat character study from writer-director Richard Shepard stars Pierce Brosnan as a gruff hitman who meets harried American businessman Greg Kinnear while in Mexico; the duo bond and ultimately tutor each other in seeking pleasure out of the game of life, including Kinnear becoming involved in one of Brosnan’s latest “assignments.”

“The Matador” is raunchy but consistently amusing and unpredictable, with Brosnan and Kinnear offering well-shaded performances that ably back the demands of Shepard’s eclectic script. Though laced with black humor, this is not nearly as bitter a cinematic pill as Brosnan’s “Tailor of Panama,” with the actors and filmmaker straddling the line between dramatic and comedic elements consistently throughout. The mix may not be completely successful but, for the most part, “The Matador” is a refreshing and always-entertaining ride well worth seeking out on DVD.

The Genius Products DVD is filled with special features as well, including commentaries with Shepard and the stars; a list of extended and/or deleted scenes with optional commentary; a Making Of featurette; trailers; and an assembly of radio programs discussing the film. The 2.35 (16:9) transfer is colorful and crisp, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound highly satisfying, featuring a top-notch collection of rock ‘n roll and Rolfe Kent’s solid original score.

New From Sony

ULTRAVIOLET: Unrated Edition (**, 2006). 94 mins., Sony. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making Of featurette; Milla Jovovich commentary; 16:9 (1.85) Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Writer-director Kurt Wimmer’s second stab at a futuristic sci-fi action film (following the flawed but under-appreciated “Equilibrium”) is a 94-minute video game masquerading as a feature, with a laughable story, non-existent characters, and a glossy visual sheen.

Taking a break from the “Resident Evil” series long enough to appear as another tough action heroine, Milla Jovovich stars as Violet, a woman afflicted by a disease that turns its victims into super-human “hemophages” who are shunned and exterminated from a futuristic society. Now crusading against their world’s oppressive human rulers (including the totally ineffective Nick Chinlund), Violet has to tackle a new assignment: take down the latest weapon of the other side...which turns out to be a young boy (Cameron Bright) who offers a cure for the disease.

It’s been reported that “Ultraviolet” was taken out of Wimmer’s hands and cut to shreds by the studio, which is entirely possible given the absurd, thinly-drawn plot and scant character development. Impossible to accept from any sort of dramatic standpoint, “Ultraviolet” is still a good-looking film with colorful action sequences and a decent performance from Jovovich, who likely could have parlayed this role into a franchise of her own had the movie supported her with any kind of story. Needless to say it doesn’t, and it won’t take long before your patience will be tested by a film that seems to have emulated “Sky Captain” with its CGI-enhanced backdrops, as well as “Aeon Flux” with its tale of a kick-ass sci-fi heroine.

Sony’s Unrated DVD edition, out this week, contains a spectacular 16:9 transfer. It may not be HD-worthy but it’s darn close, with strong colors and perfectly framed picture making for a robust visual presentation. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, containing a thankless Klaus Badelt action score, is likewise active.

Not having seen the theatrical version, I can’t tell you how different this Unrated version is, other than that it’s six minutes longer than the PG-13 cut (available separately) and likely still isn’t the original version Wimmer had in mind when he made the film (assuming those stories of post-production tinkering are valid). Extras are limited to a sporadic commentary from Jovovich and a Making Of featurette.

At best, “Ultraviolet” is arguably worth a rental for easy-to-please sci-fi fans with TVs large enough to appreciate the visual presentation.

BLACK HAWK DOWN: Extended Version (****, 152 mins., 2001, Sony): Ridley Scott's visualization of the harrowing, real-life 1993 U.S. mission in Somalia is a gut-wrenching, riveting film that puts many recent military cinematic pictures (including a certain, overrated Steven Spielberg Oscar-winner) to shame with its lack of speechifying, cliches, and sentimentality. Sony’s new “Extended” Version of “Black Hawk Down” adds some eight minutes back into the movie, but truth be told, I had a difficult time picking out the new footage from the theatrical cut, which I admittedly haven’t seen in some time. What’s more, this single-disc edition lacks significant extras (just a PBS Frontline documentary), making it a tough sell when Sony’s outstanding, three-disc Special Edition remains one of the DVD medium’s most superlative packages. The 16:9 (2.40) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both excellent.

PRIVATE RESORT (*½, 1985, 82 mins., R, Sony): Not one of the more fondly-remembered ‘80s teen romps, “Private Resort” is best known now for its early starring appearances of Rob Morrow and Johnny Depp, who play a couple of young guys trying to score at a Florida resort. This 1985 Tri-Star release runs a bit over 80 minutes and is pretty much a by-the-numbers clone of “Porky’s” and other films of its era, minus a story or developed characters. In fact, everything in this George Bowers effort is cardboard and cliched, wasting even the talents of Hector Elizondo as a jewel thief who runs afoul of our heroes. It’s sunny, silly, and instantly forgettable, and likely would never have warranted a re-issue had Depp not received a prominent starring role. Sony’s DVD neglects the merits of the movie and offers a decent 16:9 (1.85) transfer with mono sound.

YELLOWBEARD (**, 1983, 96 mins., PG, Sony): Disappointing comedy from Monty Python’s Graham Chapman tried to utilize a Mel Brooks-ian approach for this send-up of the pirate genre. Regrettably, despite a game cast, “Yellowbeard” died at the box-office during the busy ‘83 summer season and has been forgotten almost completely since. Chapman plays a pirate who finds out he has a son after spending 20 years in prison; an all-star supporting cast with numerous Brooks and Python alumnus (Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, John Cleese, Eric Idle) tries hard to support the Chapman-Peter Cook-Bernard McKenna script with laughs, but most of “Yellowbeard” is pretty desperate, with long stretches of tedium marking its 96 minute running time. Sony’s DVD sports a respectable 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 2.0 mono sound, with a fairly forgettable John Morris score likewise attempting to stir up the comedy.

MGM’s beloved DVD anthology of “Midnite Movies” seemingly came to an end after the studio’s library was gobbled up by Sony, but their new distributor has seen fit to resurrect the label this week -- at least for a pair of new double-disc packages, obviously issued to coincide with the upcoming release of “Pirates of the Caribbean 2.”

The first set offers CRYSTALSTONE -- a 1988 Spanish-produced family film, presented in 1.85 (16:9) widescreen -- plus the Bert I. Gordon 1960 juvenile effort THE BOY AND THE PIRATES, which UA released theatrically and Sony offers here in 1.66 (non-anamorphic) widescreen.

The second -- and far superior -- package presents a pair of vintage Columbia-produced, Louis Hayward-starring efforts including the 1950 adventure FORTUNES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD and its 1952 sequel CAPTAIN PIRATE. Both of the latter offer satisfying Saturday Matinee fun for young (and young-at-heart) viewers, and are presented in their original 1.33 aspect ratios with acceptable Dolby Digital mono sound. The soundtracks for both movies are also a blast, with Paul Sawtell offering a robust score for “Fortunes” and George Duning filling in admirably in the sequel.

Both releases offer moderate genre entertainment at low prices (especially the Hayward set), but for superior pirate fare, save your plunder for Fox’s “Black Swan” Special Edition coming up in July (and which I’ll have covered in next week’s Aisle Seat).

Also New on DVD

ANNAPOLIS (**, 2006, 103 mins., PG-13; Touchstone): For those too young to remember old-school films like “Rocky” or “An Officer and a Gentleman” -- or the countless other movies “Annapolis” was “inspired” by -- this teeny-bopper effort is watchable enough. After slogging through “Tristan and Isolde,” James Franco fares better in a more contemporary role here as a young man driven to join the Navy, who ends up butting heads with tough commander Tyrese Gibson and falling in love with cute (but hardly convincing) officer Jordana Brewster. It’s all eventually settled in a climactic fight that you can see coming from miles away, but director Justin Lin coaxes competent performances out of his cast and the film is entertaining enough to work...provided you can distance yourself from writer Dave Collard’s overly-familiar premise. Touchstone’s DVD includes director commentary, deleted scenes with optional commentary, and two Making Of featurettes. The 1.85 (16:9) and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are both top-notch, with Brian Tyler’s score aiming for the heroic strains you’d expect it would.

COMMANDER IN CHIEF: 2-Disc Inaugural Edition (2005-06, 10 Episodes, 427 mins., Buena Vista): This ABC series attempted to pick up audiences while NBC’s “The West Wing” faded into the sunset, but after a strong start in the ratings, “Commander In Chief” fell apart, a victim of rapidly-declining viewership and reported strife behind the scenes (producer Rod Lurie was removed from his duties early on, and was ultimately replaced by “show runner” Steven Bochco to no avail). Geena Davis did, however, give it her all as the nation’s first female president, and was backed by a solid supporting cast including Donald Sutherland as the Speaker of the House. The stories, though, lacked the intrigue of the early years of “The West Wing,” often steering towards controversy instead of riveting or consistent drama. Buena Vista has apparently decided to offer the show on DVD in two volumes, with this first two-disc “Inaugural” set compiling the series’ initial 10 episodes. The transfers (1.78, 16:9 widescreen) and sound (5.1) mixes are both excellent across the two platters, with no extra supplements on-hand.

THE LIBERTINE (**½, 114 mins., R, 2005; Weinstein/Genius Products): Excellent production values and superb performances highlight this uneven biopic of one John Wilmot, poet, playwright, and Earl of Rochester who engages in drinking, debauchery and general self-destruction in Restoration-era England; needless to say, after 114 minutes, Wilmot easily owns up to his early boast to the audience that we won’t like him. John Malkovich is King Charles II and Samantha Morton is terrific in a somewhat under-written role as Elizabeth Barry, the young actress whom Wilmot tutors in his new work, and it’s the performances that make “The Libertine” worth viewing. Director Laurence Dunmore and writer Stephen Jeffreys (adapting his play) have fashioned a dark, grainy visual experience apropos to the subject matter, especially in the graphic later stages when Wilmot succumbs to venereal disease(s) and begins to literally waste away. “The Libertine” isn’t easily-accessible and sat on the shelf for well over a year while the filmmakers tried re-editing it (longer versions were screened to generally poor notices on the festival circuit), but it’s a noble effort in spite of its flaws, worth seeing if only for Depp’s characterization. Genius Products’ DVD includes numerous deleted scenes with optional comments from Dunmore, who also gives a full commentary during the film; a Making Of featurette and the trailer round out the disc, which sports a muddy 2.35 (16:9) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, the latter containing an appropriately somber score from Michael Nyman.

NEXT TIME: A Fourth of July spectacular with Fox catalog titles, THE BLACK SWAN, and More! Don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers everyone!

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